A large delegation of women from around the country – the Associated Press estimated 100,000 marchers – took part in National Women’s March in Washington, D.C. on Saturday. Leading the march, the very first group in line, was a new international coalition of over 100 Jewish Women of Color. And leading the Jewish Women of Color – and carrying the Torah – was Madison’s own Shahanna McKinney Baldon.
“We led the entire march of 100,000 women,” Shahanna McKinney Baldon tells Madison365 in a phone conversation from Washington D.C. “That Torah I had in my hands led the whole march. And several of us right up front were Wisconsin women.”
McKinney Baldon, the Director of Professional Learning for the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN) project at Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER), was one of a dozen women from the midwest who traveled to Washington D.C. to join a diverse, international coalition of Jewish women of color and allies to declare allegiance with the Women’s March.
Many of the women in the coalition arrived on Friday prior to the march where they attended several Jewish Women of Color events in the DC area. The coalition affirmed its support for the Women’s March unity principles with an open letter that they released prior to the march and emphasized the unique and crucial role of Jewish women of color in organizing for social justice.
“As Jewish Women of Color, we support the Women’s March and believe that this is the time for our communities to affirm together that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights,” the open letter reads. “As Jewish Women of Color who live at the intersection of racism, sexism and anti-Semitism, and who are committed to standing against white supremacy, patriarchy and religious oppression in all its forms, we will play an integral role in the healing and unification of our communities and in the work of securing greater justice and freedom for us all.”
The coalition has members hailing from communities across the US and Canada who are leaders from across a range of social, political, religious, and secular groups and organizations . One of the leaders of the coalition was Boston-based CEO Yavilah McCoy, who was also one of the Women’s March’s official speakers.
A graduate of the UW Madison School of Education, McKinney Baldon is a leader in equity education and advocacy work, and has led a number local, regional, and national projects that focus on racial diversity, including in faith community settings. McKinney Baldon has been doing work around racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community for decades.
“The event, for me, felt like a life-affirming and life-changing moment,” McKinney Baldon says. “There were Jewish women of color marching here in D.C., there were Jewish women of color marching at local events. there were Jewish women of color who chose to stay home, but regardless we are all marching together into this moment of uplift and this moment of unity and into this moment of Jewish women of color leading the charge of getting at the nuance in these conversations around racism and sexism and anti-Semitism and other forms of oppression.”
There was a bit of controversy leading up to this year’s march over alleged anti-Semitism against the organizers, with national march co-president Tamika Mallory at the center of the controversy. Major sponsors, including the NAACP and the Democratic National Convention, pulled their support from the organization as a result of the growing debates.
“This binary [choice] – Jews or people of color – erases our experiences for Jews who are also people of color,” McKinney Baldon says. “But over the last several weeks, Jewish women of color have been teaching the leadership of the women’s march about anti-Semitism and intersectionality, and the narrative is shifting to a focus on intersectionality while also maintaining a focus on ending anti-black racism.”
“We came to Washington D.C. to stand in unity and support the unity principles of the Women’s March,” she adds. “And women from Wisconsin led the way, including five women from Milwaukee in our midwest delegation.”
Jewish women of color is a pan-ethnic term that is used to identify Jews whose family origins are originally in African, Asian or Latin-American countries and may identify as Black, Latina, Asian-American or of mixed heritage such as biracial or multi-racial. They join the Jewish community in a variety of ways including birth, transracial/transnational adoption, intermarriage and conversion.
“Jews have always been a mixed people … since ancient times. There are stories in the Bible about our diversity and that diversity persists today,” McKinney Baldon says. “It’s true that most of the Jews in this country are of eastern European descent, so there is a stereotype here that Jews are white – but I am a Jew of Eastern European descent and I’m also African American.”
McKinney Baldon said she was proud to have the backing of Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim here in Madison. She added that participating in – and leading! – the 2019 Women’s March on Washington D.C. with her daughter will be an experience that she will continue to draw upon in her leadership.
“I’m very much looking forward to this next phase of stepping up our game in terms of getting at the complexities and the nuance around what we need to do to end all types of oppression,” she says. “And we feel really good about our group’s contributions to this year’s march”